The Sunday Deep Dive

Tamil Nadu rural local body polls | Re-empowering the grassroots

Garnering support: Artists painting symbols of candidates on walls ahead of the rural local bodies polls in Vattakinaru, Tirunelveli.

Garnering support: Artists painting symbols of candidates on walls ahead of the rural local bodies polls in Vattakinaru, Tirunelveli.

T he rural local bodies elections for nearly 24,000 seats in nine districts, scheduled for October 6 and 9, would have been a routine affair, as they constitute, in effect, a part of the elections held in December 2019. But, in May this year, Fort St. George, the seat of power in Tamil Nadu, saw a change of guard with the AIADMK losing power in the Assembly election to the DMK, which remained in the Opposition for 10 consecutive years. The political change and the subsequent events give a new context to the local bodies elections wherein the conventional party-based system is for members of wards of panchayat unions and district panchayats. In the parlance of political parties, a ward of panchayat union is called a 5,000-member ward and that of district panchayat a 50,000-elector ward. In respect of ward members and presidents of village panchayats, the party-less system of elections is followed.

Naturally, the ruling DMK and its allies view these elections as an opportunity to get the public endorsement which they got five months ago reiterated. With their alliance remaining intact, they are hopeful of romping home this time, too. As the new government is not even six months old, its supporters are of the view that there is hardly anything that can be held against it. At the same time, the Opposition front, led by the AIADMK, according to the ruling alliance, has weakened with the exit of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which has decided to go it alone. In seven of the nine poll-bound districts in the northern region, the PMK is perceived to be a strong force. Its spokesperson K. Balu asserts, “The results of the local bodies elections [which will be out from October 12] will demonstrate again that we are the third force in the State.”

 

It is not that there are no rumblings within the ruling front. For example, in a ward of the Tenkasi panchayat union in the south, the Communist Party of India and the DMK have put up their nominees, according to information available on the website of the State Election Commission (SEC). K. Balakrishnan, State secretary of the CPI(M), acknowledges that the seat-sharing arrangement, which happens in respect of the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, does not operate the same way in the case of local bodies. “Where there exists an understanding for seat-sharing, we, the Left, are contesting together as part of the broad alliance. At the same time, where no agreement has been reached, we are contesting separately. However, there is no problem among all our partners at the State level.”

Durai Murugan, DMK’s general secretary and Water Resources Minister, dismisses reports of rumblings as inconsequential and maintains that the alliance is facing the elections united. “In some places, there may be inevitable candidates but their party strength may not be such that the seats can be given to the parties of such candidates,” he explains. Besides the DMK government’s welfare measures in the last five months, the way COVID-19 has been handled will stand the government in good stead, he says.

However, the AIADMK, despite suffering an electoral setback recently, does not seem to be lagging behind its arch-rival in its quest for power at the grassroots level. Its two prime leaders, Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam, who did not get involved personally in electioneering in December 2019, have chosen to adopt a different strategy by visiting the nine districts this time.

 

While the main Opposition party has accommodated the BJP in many wards of the panchayat unions and the district panchayats, it has allotted only panchayat union wards to the Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar). Yet, this front, too, suffers from the problem of one constituent taking on another. In a Kallakurichi district panchayat ward, the BJP is pitted against the dominant party.

The PMK’s departure from the AIADMK-led alliance may cause some loss of votes here and there in the north, “but it has given rise to the possibility of my party getting closer to non-Vanniyar Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes,” points out a senior leader of the AIADMK in the region. He sounds confident of his party retaining its vote base, if not increasing its share. In support of this contention, he refers to the spirit with which former Law Minister and party strongman in Villupuram, C. Ve. Shanmugam is working in the district. There are other parties in the fray such as the Naam Tamilar Katchi, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, the Makkal Needhi Maiam and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam.

Important for the people

The rural local bodies elections are important not just for the parties. They hold greater significance for people, too, as they bring them closer to the institutions of local self-government. “I could see greater participation of youth this time than two years ago,” says S. Nandakumar, general secretary of ‘Thannatchi,’ a civil society organisation. He was part of a group of activists, under the banner of Gandhiyam Muneduppom Kuttiyakkam, who went around the five poll-bound districts in August to gauge the mood and sensitise people to the importance of the rural local bodies. Also, women and members of self-help groups and persons with disabilities have taken to the polling process with zeal, he points out.

S. Gokul, another activist hailing from the Wallajabad panchayat union of Kancheepuram district, comes up with a curious angle to the enhanced interest of the youth in the election process. “In the last five years, when there was no elected body, the absence of elected presidents and the presence of special officers saw more youth taking part at gram sabha meetings than in the past. They have extended their interest to the electoral battle,” Mr. Gokul says, adding that “social capital” of young candidates who have done substantive work in their village panchayats is even getting better reception than the “money power” of certain candidates.

However, E. Vidhubala, a psycho-oncologist and social activist, who is based out of Tirunelveli district, feels that a lot more has to happen on the ground for the real benefits of the elected local bodies to be realised. Women in greater numbers are there this time than in the past; but, invariably, they are seen as proxies of their husbands. Generally, there is reluctance among several sections to contest in the elections. “And even if you do genuine social work, you are viewed as a person who is doing it for personal gain during elections,” Dr. Vidhubala says, adding that in parts of Thoothukudi district, there are villages where people are not even aware of gram sabha meetings.

There are several stages to be crossed for the State to be recognised as a path-breaker in panchayat raj institutions. Sections of activists and academics are optimistic that Tamil Nadu, with its many inherent advantages, can be a trendsetter. They cite how the State is continuing with its party-less system for village panchayats despite some Scheduled Caste presidents having run into hurdles to their functioning. “There is a view that if the presidents are elected on party lines, they will be having the support of their parties, which will take care of the problem that they are having now,” says V. Ragupathy, an academic.

The State Election Commission has started the preliminary work for elections to the urban local bodies.

Ever since the elections to the urban local bodies began to be held under the Nagarpalika Act 25 years ago, success stories of these civic bodies and councillors have been few and far between. This is why this view — the possibility of activists like Mr. Nandakumar and Mr. Gokul at the village level acting as a positive influence on the urban local bodies — gains credence.


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Printable version | Jun 23, 2022 11:58:46 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/tamil-nadu-rural-local-body-polls-re-empowering-the-grassroots/article36800746.ece